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Gulf oil spill still out to sea, but odor has reached shore

BILOXI, Miss. — Areas of Bay St. Louis, Waveland and Gulfport reported pervasive petroleum smells Tuesday.

It was described variously as a burned-plastic odor, odd waxy smell and the smell of diesel exhaust.

It's to be expected, officials said, with all that crude oil in the Gulf.

But the EPA is monitoring the air on the Coast constantly with two buses and a plane, a spokesman said Tuesday. So far it’s safe.

He said people can smell the chemical odor of evaporating crude at levels in the air well below the levels that concern the EPA.

“The smell and the health concern are two different things,” said Francisco Cruz, EPA spokesman out of Mobile.

What people likely are smelling is the volatile organic compounds that have evaporated into the air, one group of airborne elements the EPA is monitoring. These include benzene, toluene and ethylbenzene.

Cruz described this as similar to smelling gasoline fumes at the gas pump.

The EPA also is monitoring particulates in the air, “particles that come from the smoke, from any of the burns that have occurred in the Gulf,” he said.

On Tuesday the Coast registered 3 parts per million in the air, Cruz said.

The EPA is concerned with levels that exceed 5 ppm.

Still, if the smell creates headaches or nausea, Cruz recommends people call their doctor. The EPA Web site, which displays daily readings, also recommends people who are sensitive to the odor reduce prolonged, heavy exertion outside. gave Waveland and Gulfport a yellow — that’s moderate — rating Tuesday.

The petroleum smell can pop up just about anywhere along the Coast, officials said, depending on which way the wind is blowing.

Rupert Lacy, Harrison County’s emergency management director, said the wind was southerly Tuesday, just right for bringing the smell ashore. He expects a southerly or southeasterly wind for the next few days.

“We don’t see oil product close to our waterways,” Lacy said. “But that’s not going to say you won’t have the smell.

“We’ll have good days and bad days.”

A marine scientist believes debris he collected in the ocean is from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion.

Lacy said he had reports of a crude-oil smell last week along Mississippi 53 at the northern edge of Gulfport. Tuesday, reports came from closer to the shoreline.

The smell can skip areas closer to the shore and go inland, he said, depending on the wind patterns — uplifts and downdrafts.

“There’s a lot of complexity,” he said.

EPA’s Cruz said they haven’t had reports of a petroleum smell any farther north than the coastal counties.

Over the weekend Waveland Mayor Tommy Longo had state agencies out double-checking reports in his city.

He said they gave the all-clear as far as health hazards.

“Thursday a week ago there was a heavy odor and then no odor for five days,” Longo said. “Now today, less odor. I want to make sure that it’s nontoxic and that everybody’s OK. That’s my chief concern.”

A businesswoman in downtown Bay St. Louis said, “It was an oily smell last week. Today we were trying to figure out what we were smelling. It was a waxy smell. It’s not unpleasant or sickening, just every once in a while it’s something different, not a regular smell.”

She said, “It’s not overpowering. Just every now and then a whiff.”

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